Mirza Ahmad reflects on his transition from local government to being a barrister in private practice and provides advice for those considering a similar switch.
I graduated with a combined honours degree in law and politics in 1983, and in 1992, I also obtained an MBA. This was followed in 1998 by an LLM in employment and industrial relations law. These degrees were, undoubtedly, the best investments in my career and allowed me to excel in the law.
After being called to the Bar in 1984, I entered local government with Ipswich Borough Council the following year. Originally I gave myself five years in local government. If I did not like it or my career did not take off, I had a clear strategic intent to go to the Bar after having gained the experience, contacts and a safety net of financial independence.
It was a thought that remained with me. However, I spent 26 years in local government – rising to the very top of legal services at Birmingham City Council. With a highly-talented team of lawyers and managers, I was fortunate in turning around the council’s low performing legal department into a highly-successful, national award-winning department that began to punch its weight.
I left the council at the end of July 2011 after I had been a successful Director of Governance, with more than 800 staff covering not just legal and democratic services staff, but also Regulatory Services staff, such as environmental and public health officers, trading standards and the coroner’s service.
I left the authority because the time was right to capitalise on that initial thought and since the only way up – from the Corporate Director position – was chief executive. Going to another local authority legal department was not a viable proposition from a career advancement point of view.
I left, therefore, with the strategic aim of becoming a top QC and to capitalise on my national knowledge and expertise in local authority law and governance. In time, I also hoped to be a member of the judiciary.
Both of these career aspirations could realistically only be attained from private practice and St Philips Chambers in Birmingham remains a leading national set with great reputation. We are in the process of setting up chambers in London and Leeds. I am, therefore, able to serve the whole of local government, not just one employer.
Making the transition
Here are seven pointers for self-transformation and success for those looking to make the transition to private practice:
- Success in one area does not automatically guarantee success in another career direction because of the different context and required skill sets. For example, I am now doing a lot of advocacy in the courts and tribunals after many solid years doing Board level, written advocacy and corporate management. One major difference is the value of skeleton arguments, lists of issues for trial and closing submissions, which focus the mind and definitely help with oral advocacy.
- Contacts matter and need to be nurtured continuously. As you change and develop your career or fields of law, those contacts will change and develop with you. So you neglect them at your peril. Your old and new contacts become your source of income. LinkedIn can be a powerful tool. Twitter can also be helpful in keeping your profile raised, but best to keep Facebook for your private and close friends, as you will not always seek to be in the public headlines.
- Success does not come easy and you have to work hard. Peaks and troughs in employed sectors do not compare with the very sharp spikes of legal work, interspersed with advice work in chambers (including Bar pro bono work), editorships and chambers marketing.
- There is ample time during the early days of developing your career from chambers to make a positive difference to British society. For me that included promoting a “Yes campaign for an Elected Mayor for Birmingham” and consideration of running for it if the referendum had been positive.
- A career from chambers can be more profitable then a more predictable diary in the employed sector. There have, for example, already been a number of trials requiring work to 3am and waking up again at 6am. Such practice commitments – sometime at short notice – can play havoc with your personal life, with bursts of activity and inactivity.
- You will have to develop new levels of personal confidence and conviction to succeed for yourself and for your clients, along with a passion focused on excelling at everything that you do. Previous levels of self-confidence and convictions will help, but will not be enough as your environment has changed.
- You must continue to value life-long learning and recognise the important role that self-reflection can play in your success. This includes ensuring absolute professional integrity and providing leadership to others.
The bottom line: It really is up to you to fulfil your potential, so remain focused, remain determined and set yourself ambitious goals and targets. Do also set aside some private time to review and reality check the same, with a sufficient cash-flow buffer, as private practice payments can take time to come in.